Special Report

States Show Striking Variations on Best Places to Bring Up a Child

By Daarel Burnette II — January 15, 2019 7 min read
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When it comes to setting a child up for success in America—at least when it comes to crucial education and socioeconomic factors—place matters more than ever.

That’s the picture that emerges from analysis of the latest data in the Quality Counts 2019 Chance-For-Success Index.

A rapidly evolving economy, dramatic demographic shifts, and political discord at the federal, state, and local levels over the last half century have left in their wake a jagged K-12 landscape among the states. In some places, schools are well equipped with the newest technology, a stable teaching force, and the ability to assure their graduates head off to college at an enviable rate, while others fall short on those markers and others.

These disparities may put education policymakers under even greater scrutiny in the era of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states more say over how to oversee their public schools and is focusing attention on states’ school governance models, K-12 spending schemes, and ability to identify and replicate success.

Clustered at the Top

In its Chance-for-Success Index, the Education Week’s Research Center looks at indicators in early childhood, the school years, and adult outcomes such as steady employment and educational attainment.

Most of the top five states are clustered in the Northeast, which also happen to be places with generally strong economies and pockets of extreme wealth, according to U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey. Though debates over funding equity continue even in high-performing states, some of that wealth inevitably trickles into schools. And parents with full-time, stable jobs can often afford—and are willing to spend money on—preschool, after-school tutoring, and college, things that contribute to their children’s chances for success.

All five top states are perennial top-performers on the index overall, but they’re not immune to pressures that bedevil other states. For instance, New Hampshire ranks 42nd for kindergarten enrollment, and Minnesota is 35th for high school graduation.

In fact, fundamental problems continue to confront a large portion of America’s schools including teacher shortages, concentrations of poverty, and funding crises spurred on by outdated taxing models and school funding formulas.

And this year’s report once again reflects the head winds states face in assuring a strong foundation for their residents. This year’s national grade of C-plus on the Chance-for-Success Index is effectively unchanged over the last decade, with high-performing states and improvements in the middle of the pack still unable to budge the nation’s overall score upward to any significant degree. Only one state—Massachusetts—received an A-minus, also unchanged from last year.

What’s so special about the high performers?

Overall, they tend to score well in all of the 13 indicators the Chance-for-Success Index measures. These run the gamut from factors like families with stable jobs, good incomes, and strong parental education—factors largely beyond the control of K-12 policymakers—to academic achievement, which is often bound up with debates over school governance and standards.

With all that in mind, here are some highlights from the cluster of states that top this year’s list of best places in America to raise a child with an eye toward lifetime success.

Massachusetts (A-minus): In 1993, Massachusetts’ lawmakers passed the Massachusetts Education Reform Act that featured statewide academic standards, a new accountability system, and millions more dollars into its school system. Many argue that having a long-standing statewide consensus on what teachers should expect from their students can significantly increase the likelihood that students meet and exceed those expectations.

Under the category of “School Years,” Massachusetts lands almost half its 8th graders as proficient on NAEP’s math exams and more than half its 4th graders were proficient on reading exams. In that same category, more than 87 percent of Massachusetts high school students graduate with a diploma and 72 percent of those young adults go on to enroll in a postsecondary school.

And while it’s not something captured by Chance for Success, the state’s department of education has gained attention for its efforts to improve its worst-performing schools, a process that includes both state and local input.

Challenges remain in other areas, however: Many school districts are squeezed financially, for example, and the state’s growing number of English-language learners continue to struggle on state exams. Education and political leaders are debating how to overhaul the school spending formula and some parts of the state’s accountability system.

New Jersey (B-plus): States that can get children enrolled in prekindergarten early and assure that they stay in the school system through the end of their senior year of high school are more likely to set them up for success later on in life.

New Jersey has one of the highest levels of preschool enrollment in the nation, according to the Education Week Research Center. More than 90 percent of its students end up graduating from high school.

But it’s not just K-12 policymakers that have been behind the wheel: New Jersey’s courts have been among the most active in the nation in pushing state officials to improve schools. The state’s supreme court in recent years has mandated small class sizes, pre-K enrollment, and minimal teacher qualifications for 31 of its mostly poor, urban districts.

And the state’s overall high performance comes against the backdrop of plenty of political and policy ferment over the years. Under former-Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, the state was entrenched in a debate over how to compensate and hold accountable the state’s teachers, test its students, and improve its worst-performing schools. And Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat elected in 2017, has pushed to change the way the state tests its students and expand its pre-K programs.

New Hampshire (B-plus): This high-performing state has focused plenty of attention on the career end of the educational pipeline. Amid a statewide workforce shortage, Spaulding High School, Great Bay Community College, and aerospace component manufacturer Safran, all based in Rochester, partnered to create a program for high school seniors to take classes in the high-demand field of composites manufacturing. The program has gained accolades for its ability to pair soon-to-be high school graduates with local in-demand jobs.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said in his State of the State address this month that he wants to create a “New Hampshire Career Academy” in order for high school students to gain associates degrees in high-demand fields before their graduation.

Looking at both the earlier and later ends of the school spectrum, nearly 51 percent of eligible New Hampshire children enroll in preschool. And 60 percent of young adults go on to postsecondary education.

But New Hampshire also struggles with social issues including an opioid crisis that’s led to fractured home lives and problems such as students missing time in school. And its population has declined as many students leave the state after high school, as in many other Northeastern states.

Connecticut (B-plus): Connecticut has long been known for its wealthy enclaves: 49 percent of its adults have two- or four-year postsecondary degrees, 61 percent of its adults have an income at or above the national median, and 72 percent of its adults have steady employment.

That means its student body on average is less transient, and there are fewer schools with concentrated poverty that can overwhelm school officials. The state spends on average $17,000 per student, $5,000 more than the average state.

But that money is often not spent in equitable and efficient ways. In a 2016 ruling, a superior court judge issued a sweeping condemnation of the state’s teacher-quality standards, special education spending, and the dwindling academic performance of the state’s poor, black, and Hispanic students.

That ruling was struck down by the state supreme court early in 2018, but politicians, including Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, have promised to address many of the concerns raised in the ruling.

Minnesota (B-plus): Despite being mostly rural and situated far from the top-ranking states in the Northeast, Minnesota ranks as the fifth-best state to raise a child.

Many attribute Minnesota’s standout performance over the years to the state’s consistently high standards, stable leadership at the state’s department of education, and a heavy focus on teacher quality.

Stable governance models, consistent leadership, and high expectations can bode well for children’s future. The most-recent statistics show that 46 percent of Minnesota 8th graders performed proficient on the NAEP math exam, helping to keep the state among this year’s top Chance for Success rankings.

But Minnesota has long struggled to close the performance gap between its wealthier white students and its growing number of poor black, Latino, and immigrant students.

And on the leadership front, the state is in for a shakeup: Newly elected Democratic Gov. Tim Walz recently replaced the state’s longtime state chief, Brenda Cassellius, who had been in office for eight years, with Mary Cathryn Ricker, the former vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.


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